As you read this in your office, Zainab Alibhai might be tumbling off a plane 12,000 feet above the Indian Ocean or God-knows-where.
That is her job, to fall off planes, often strapped onto someone who is probably screaming or praying or both. She is a skydiving instructor, the first internationally recognised Kenyan skydive instructor, and the first Kenyan to be certified as an internationally recognised FAA Senior Parachute Rigger [and perhaps the only FAA Senior Parachute Rigger in all of East Africa, word has it].
She owns a company called Go Jump Kenya, the first ever Dropzone in Kenya owned by a local. It opened last year. [Dropzone; a place where parachutists land].
“This has always been my dream,” she says about opening a dropzone in Kenya.
“I spent multiple seasons working at dropzones in South Africa, Germany, and the US, learning how skydiving operates.”
She has thousands of jumps under her belt. A few times, she has jumped with her 70-year-old mother, who is half Ugandan, and half British. [Dad is Kenyan Indian]
Why do people feel the need to skydive?
Why not? It’s a safe sport, safer than scuba diving which is 33 percent more dangerous. Plus we jump out of planes because where else can you do that from?
Uhm, buildings, like base jumping or bungee. But regardless, what drives someone to do something so scary?
I’ll give you my personal opinion. [Pause] So every time I jump out of a plane, I’m up there alone. There is no sound or anybody around me. That is the only moment in my life I get to be peaceful. It feels like meditation.
Sure, I do yoga and other things, but true peace comes from diving off a plane. It’s of peace and freedom and tranquillity.
How did this come about? When did you say, ‘I will be the person who jumps off planes for a living'?
I started skydiving about 10 years ago. I did my first tandem in Diani and knew right after that I wanted to do this. A tandem is when you jump out of a plane with an instructor.
As a newbie, you’re only allowed to parachute and skydive attached to a licensed instructor. You need to go through a lot of training to become a tandem instructor. So a novice jumps with a tandem instructor.
So you did a tandem jump and said, 'this is my thing'?
Yes. Two weeks after the jump, I signed up and started my Accelerated Free Fall course. It is designed by the US Parachute Association and consists of eight jumps.
From the first to the third jump, you go out with two instructors attached to you, but you wear the parachute. They train you how to pull the parachute and check the altitude of your jump. Once you open the parachute, you do some safety checks, and then steer your canopy and land safely.
This is a whole course spread over eight jumps. After that, you do a few solo jumps, then a few more coach jumps. Once you accumulate 25 skydives you get your licence.
Afterwards, you can jump with other licensed skydivers. However, to be a tandem instructor you have to accumulate 500 skydives.
How many jumps do you do in a day?
I’ve done a maximum of six jumps here but when I worked in Chicago, I would do 14. That was during the long summer days.
What can you tell people who have a fear of heights like me? My head swims when I look down at the third floor.
[Chuckles] True, skydiving has to do with height, but when you jump out of a plane, you’re looking at the horizon, not down at the ground, right? And because you’re looking at the horizon, you don’t have that fear.
It also helps when you do a tandem first. Knowing that you are with an instructor, that whatever happens, the pilot is in command. It does wonders for your confidence. You can then enjoy the ride.
Most people who fear heights say they are less fearful after the jump. It is different from a rollercoaster or a bungee jump. Skydiving is smooth and easy. You feel like a free bird, you should try it.
I did, once, some years ago. Never again. By the way, what happens when someone passes out midjump?
[Chuckles] Yeah, a few passengers can pass out. Our job is to land them safely, even if they are unconscious. But we try to wake them up by tapping their shoulder, faces or pinching them.
Often they regain their consciousness, and after a few seconds they are like, ‘Oh yeah, here I am.’
And what happens when the instructor passes out?
[Laughs] No. I’ve never heard of one incident of an instructor passing out. But I'll be happy to research this for you and email you.
What does a person like you fear?
Not jumping every day. Not being able to jump again.
Is fear addictive?
I don’t think so but you can conquer your fear. If you can conquer something I don’t think it is addictive.
Is there any personal fear of yours you have conquered?
Yes, I was scared of the sea, which is odd because I lived in Mombasa for 25 years and often by the sea. Unless somebody accompanied me, I wouldn’t swim in the sea. I was scared of sharks.
I knew we don’t have that problem on our beaches, but shuddered at the thought of one biting me in half. So, what I did to conquer this fear was, a few years ago I went to South Africa and did shark cage diving.
It’s where they put you in a cage and lower it into the water filled with sharks. Yeah. [Laughs]. Now I can confidently go swim in the sea, I go snorkelling and I started scuba diving as well.
What dreams did you have growing up as a young Muslim girl?
Well, I didn’t have any dreams. I just wanted to be successful and give back to the community. I’ve had much love and support from people throughout my journey as a skydiver and I want to give back.
A skydiving centre where people can do tandems and learn about skydiving is my way of saying thank you to the community again.
You meet people in their very fearful and vulnerable moments before they jump. What have you learnt about that?
That you can conquer anything if you speak your mind. Every strong emotion resides in the mind and you can’t fix it. Speak to your mind and it will listen to everything you tell it.
Fear is a part of us, we’re always scared about something or the other. If we are not fearful, then we are not human beings.
Why do people fear heights, is it the fear of the height itself or something deeper, like the fear of death?
[Pause] I don’t know the answer to that question. [Deep thought] I don’t know.
What’s the most common thing people ask you when you’re up there, just about to jump?
Shall we do this? A few people pray. I pray every time.
Are you still very spiritual?
I believe that when you ask for the Higher power, His assistance, and His guidance, He will give it to you at any time, any day, anywhere. Regardless of where you are, who you are, or what you do.
What’s the best part of your job; is it when someone is about to pee in their pants from fear, when they are about to jump off, or when they land and are exhilarated, punching the air and saying, ‘yes! yes!”
[Laughs] My job is very fulfilling. I wake up smiling every day because of what I have achieved and how far I have come. But then I also have many more goals to achieve for skydiving in Kenya.
I want to open a parachute rigging school and a skydiving school, which I’m going to do this year. Investing in parachutes takes time.
Statistically, between men and women who do you think fears heights the most?
Men. [Laughter]. Without a doubt.
Why do you think that is the case?
Because men like to control, but also because they don’t want to give control to someone else. Up there, you hand over your control to the instructor. So men get a little nervous about that arrangement. [Laughs]
Does it get any easier for you with each jump? Or less fearful?
You have to have some fear because if you don’t, you will become complacent. You won’t do your handle checks, you are likely to pull it [parachute] at a lower altitude and do a low turn under the parachute and whatnot.
Fear keeps you in check. So am I scared when I’m jumping out every time? Yes and no. But, I believe in what I do. I know I’ve packed my parachute well, I know I’ve checked all the gears and I have to do certain things at certain times.
I keep to my routine and land safely every time. In the ten years of my sport, I haven’t had one accident.
Do you have other hobbies apart from this?
I play tennis, I’ve just started playing tennis. I swim a lot. I want to finish up my scuba. I like to read sometimes but obviously, skydiving doesn’t give me much time to do it. I dabble in interior design once in a while.
When you’re up there and you look at planet earth, what do you feel?
Small. So small. [Laughs]. The world is so big and we, human beings, take everything for granted. We think we’ve achieved so much, that we are such important organisms on this earth but when you go up there and look down you will see for yourself and think wow, we are nothing.